Many women don't consider how feminine hygiene products are made. If the brand says cotton on the label, most automatically think it's safe. Since feminine hygiene products are classified as medical devices, companies do not have to release materials used in the product. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) only regulates tampon absorbency, so all must meet the same guidelines.
Any chemicals, fragrances or plastics used in the manufacturing of the product do not have to be disclosed. However, these products sit right up against your skin, the largest organ in your body and also the thinnest. Less than one-tenth inch separates your body from potential toxins. What’s worse, the skin around your vaginal area is highly permeable.
Medication patches are used to deliver drugs through the skin, which is why I'm fond of saying, “Don't put anything on your body that you wouldn't eat if you had to.” When chemicals come in direct contact with your skin they are absorbed straight into your bloodstream, without the benefit of being filtered through your gastrointestinal tract.
According to Girls Helping Girls Period,1 approximately 70 percent of menstruating women use tampons, amounting to more than 16,000 tampons during her lifetime. But, there's been very little research to confirm or refute their safety.
Alexandra Scranton, Women's Voices for the Earth’s director of science and research, says tampons2 "are not just your average cosmetics because they are used on an exceptionally sensitive and absorbent part of a woman's body.”
Tampons, Pads and Diapers Polluted With Phthalates and VOCs
A recent study published in Reproductive Toxicology3 confirms the results of a previous study4 from 2014 demonstrating how the feminine care industry sells products containing harmful chemicals, including pesticides, fragrances, dyes and preservatives.
In this most recent study,5 researchers measured three volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and four phthalates in commercial sanitary pads and diapers. The air inside the packaging was also measured and contained as high as 5.9 parts per billion (ppb) of VOCs.
The researchers found a considerable variability in measurements of VOCs and phthalates between brands. Researchers and advocates believe this uncovers a significant gap in regulation of diapers and is characteristic of societies’ discomfort discussing women's reproductive health. However, the authors believe:6
"The physical location of the exposure site, the high absorption rate of the genitalia for chemicals, and the long-term exposure period demand a thorough investigation on the potential impact of the exposure to VOCs and phthalates."
Sanitary pads and diapers are made of synthetic plastics, and while the study did not name the brands tested, products were collected from Japan, Finland, France, Greece and the United States. The researchers found the VOC methylene chloride in two brands of sanitary pads, toluene in nine, and xylene in all 11 brands tested.
In testing for phthalates, they found two types in all 11 brands of sanitary pads and all four brands of diapers. All four brands of diapers tested also contained the VOCs toluene and xylene. Scranton, who was not a part of the study, pointed out there were significant differences between the brands, when it came to the levels of the compounds found.
She believes these differences indicate there are a variety of ways to manufacture pads and diapers, and there is something intentionally being done during manufacturing to increase the levels of toxins.7 For instance, there was nearly a 6,000fold difference in levels of VOCs between brands and a 130fold difference between the highest levels of phthalates in sanitary pads and the lowest.
Women Exposed to Toxins at Least 7.5 Years of Their Lives
Used internally, the absorption of chemicals from tampons serves as a direct route to the bloodstream. In the 2014 report by Women's Voices for the Earth, researchers found contaminants in tampons could include dioxins, furans and pesticide residue, as well as meltdown polymers, super absorbent shells and chemically stiffened fibers.8
Depending upon the number of hours a tampon is used, the average 16,000 tampons used in a woman's lifetime may amount to between 7.5 and 10 years. This is a phenomenal amount of time to have products manufactured with toxic substances directly against permeable membranes.
The manufacturer’s aim is to produce a low-cost, highly absorbent material to satisfy their consumers and increase financial gain. This aim ultimately led to toxic shock syndrome (TSS), a complication from infection with Staphylococcal or Streptococcal infection.
The commercial tampon hit the shelves in 1930 and by 1970 manufacturers were in a race to give tampons an edge over sanitary pads.9 Deodorant tampons, plastic domed applicators and ultra-absorbent products were manufactured and released.
In 1978, Procter & Gamble began selling Rely, made of a fully synthetic, hyperabsorbent food-grade thickener. By May 1980 the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) had 55 cases of TSS reported, with the number continuing to mount.10
By June 1981 researchers had identified continuous use of tampons as a risk factor and found a link between the ultra-absorbent Rely tampon and the outbreak of cases.
However, even after Rely was taken off the shelves, women continued to suffer from TSS, and reports of TSS and allergic reactions have led to a growing movement for transparency and disclosure of ingredients in both the U.S. and abroad.